Review: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Man lives freely only by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him.

~ Mohandas Gandhi

Psychologist and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman has energetically researched the literature on “killology,” as he calls it. Not dismissing the suffering of those who gave their lives in war, he focuses here on the impact of taking life.

In On Killing, Grossman plays out a persuasive model that explains the ease with which soldiers–and, by extension, gang members and murderers–may overcome the inborn human resistance to killing a member of one’s own species.

It’s pretty simple: the closer you are, the more difficult and traumatic killing will be for you. Thus, the highest resistance to killing is felt by those at closest range–what Grossman calls “sexual range.”

The farther that one moves away from immediate contact with one’s victim, the easier it becomes to kill. Hence, hand-to-hand combat is more threatening to the potential killer than is knife range, which distances the killer from his victim: no longer hand against hand, the combatants have a tool to dispel the immediacy of the contact. More removed yet is bayonet range, followed by pistol range, then hand grenade range, rifle range, and the long range followed by snipers and anti-armor missiles.

Naturally, other factors are involved in determining the level of trauma experienced by the killer, among them the legitimacy,  proximity, and respectability of authority; the intensity of the demand and support for killing by both the authority and the peer group; the number in and legitimacy of the peer group; the predisposition of the killer; the emotional, cultural, moral, and social distance between killer and victim; and the “attractiveness” of the victim as a target–the degree of gain for one’s side and loss for the other in killing the victim.

Grossman argues that some of the trauma of Vietnam for Americans who fought in the war was due to the unprecedentedly close range at which much of the killing happened, and the soldiers’ witnessing of the suffering and death they caused, especially where children were involved, or where family members came out and mourned before their eyes. The structure of assignments in Vietnam, with loner soldiers, also meant that there was little immediate social support for killing among troops–and, of course, there was even less on soldiers’ return home.

Grossman concludes by applying his war model to life in contemporary America. The authority represented by the military hierarchy is replaced by the structure of the street gang. The predisposition of the killer is made of up of such factors as media and video desensitization, poverty, daily exposure to criminal acts, and drug use. The extreme form of desensitization training that soldiers underwent to prepare them for the Vietnam War–and that raised the firing rate from 15 to 20% in World War II to 95%–is what, he proposes, American culture now offers many of its youth. Through heavy quotation from interviews and soldiers’ written accounts, Grossman offers his book as evidence of the dark aftermath of killing and as a warning for all who think we live outside a war zone.